Killer Year–The Class of 2007


the art of research
July 18, 2007, 3:33 am
Filed under: Toni McGee Causey

One of the absolutely best things about going to conferences is that you get to meet a lot of people who are not only interested in writing/reading, but who have fascinating backgrounds and are often willing to field research questions. At ThrillerFest this weekend, I got business cards from an FBI agent, a person who does computer forensics for various government agencies tracking the use of a computer in a crime, finance and banking experts, a district attorney, a detective, firearm experts and so on. When Tess Gerritsen interviewed Lisa Gardner (one of the best sessions I attended at the conference), I was fascinated (and relieved) to learn that when Lisa first started writing suspense, she was intimidated by all of the research and (I’m paraphrasing), felt like, in spite of being a published author, that people wouldn’t believe her to be credible when she called up to ask questions and stated that it was going to be for a book. I have to admit, I often feel this way myself. Even now, with something published, I wonder if they’re going to think I’m nuts or that I’m making it up that it’s research for a book. 

Relying on the internet is such a lure, because we think we can find out everything just from plugging in a few key words (and so many of us are introverts), but Lisa pointed out something she does which I think is very smart: she’ll go to the experts and say something to the effect of “This is the crime,” or “this is how I was thinking my villain would do it, what do you think?” and sometimes the experts would say, “Oh, that’s too easy, I’d have that guy arrested in a couple of hours.” To which she then says, “Okay, how then would you do this if you wanted to get away with it?” And that often gives her the insight and/or the twists that she wouldn’t have known about had she not asked. I think this is a particularly brilliant way to approach research, though it means taking a lot of time ahead of time and asking lots of questions. There’s an art to researching well: you have to research enough to not only have the pertinent details, but to find the angle that is real to that specific area to lend authenticity to what you’re writing about… while not overloading the story with too much and boring the reader. I find writers usually divide up into “can’t stop researching” or “only research when I absolutely have to.”

I know a lot of crime writers do ride alongs or do the citizens police academy, but I’m curious what other kind of research you like to do? Do you mostly stick with the web? Interviews? Can’t stop researching? Can’t start? And what was the topic you dreaded researching and yet, found it fascinating once you got into the thick of studying it?

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3 Comments so far
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My fear is that some of the questions I ask will either get me arrested or at least put on the no-fly list. My Google history reads like the index to an Al-Quaeda training manual.

Comment by J.D. Rhoades

Thanks, Dusty, for helping me hose down my computer with coffee.

But getting back to Toni, I find that the best research comes in casual conversation. I run into cop buddies at the coffee shop where I write, and lotsa times we’re just gabbing and something comes up, answers to questions I didn’t even realize I had. It’s a fun kind of research because it’s more about being friends than anything else — its own reward.

Comment by Bill Cameron

Toni, in the beginning I did a lot of street research, literally doing ride-alongs with homicide and patrol to get a sense for what’s it’s like being a cop. Now I tend toward specific questions, and the folks I did the initial research with are always happy to be called upon.

Comment by JT Ellison




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